Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Candlebox Model (Volume 3)

When a song became a hit in the 90's, 96X gave it steady rotation. As the single faded, so did the spins. However, if a song was big enough (or liked enough by the DJ), it would resurrect itself months later for a week or two of non-stop rotation. Basically, this was the DJ saying, "hey, remember this?" You'd hear it constantly for a few days, then it would disappear again, this time for good.

The only song I ever heard come back from the dead twice was "Far Behind" by Candlebox. The single itself came early in the alt-rock boom, but 96X simply would not let it die. As late as 1998, sandwiched between Matchbox 20 and (you guessed it) The Verve, there was "Far Behind" by Candlebox.

Candlebox - Far Behind.mp3

Candlebox was indicative of a much larger trend in the mid-90's: paint-by-numbers A&R. At the height of the alt-rock explosion, music execs were desperately hoping to find the next Pearl Jam or Soundgarden or Nirvana. Instead of simply listening to music, they looked at other, more easily discernable factors. They included:

1) Dumb names. After Soundgarden, every band name needed to be two words--ideally pushed together--that simultaneously sound cool but actually mean nothing. If these words describe inanimate objects, bonus.
Example: Superdrag. Lemonheads. Silverchair. Radiohead. Etc.
Candlebox? Check.

2) Sad white guys. If they all have long hair and look (practically) identical to each other, bonus.
Example: Every band from the 90's not named Rage Against the Machine.
Candlebox? Check.

3) Vocal ticks. You needed to have a good voice, but you also needed to have a weird voice. Something memorable, and throaty, and angry, but not threatening.
Example: Can you pronounce "didn't," like "didahn't," and make "bad" a nine-syllable word? Yes, yes I can.
Candlebox? Check.

4) Vague song titles. Obviously most songs are named after the words repeated in the chorus. That's fine. But if those words are short, and vague, and suggest alienation? Gold, baby!
Example: "I Alone." "Cumbersome." Every Pearl Jam single until No Code.
Candlebox, "Far Behind"? Check.

5) Overlong hits. For some reason, the five-minute single became standard in the mid-90's. This would never happen now, as the average commercial single is 13 seconds long to accommodate 12 year-olds with ADHD, the best of our buying public. But I swear to you, burning this anthology to CD took 13 volumes instead of 10 or 11 just because of songs' length in the 90's.
Example: Why is "Banditos" by the Refreshments five minutes long? No. Good. Reason.
Candlebox, "Far Behind"? Check. (Clocks in at a brief 4:54)

6) Muddy, heavy guitars. Huge, heavily distorted guitars were a grunge staple. If you could somehow make them sound like they're being played underwater, even better.
Example: "Come As You Are." "Lightning Crashes."
Candlebox? Check.

7) GenX ambiguity. This is really an extension of #4, but in no other decade would a chorus consist almost entirely of the word "Maybe," dragged out and repeated beyond submission. "Let's build up into a climactic chorus, then let's scream the most anti-climactic word in the English language."
"Yes"? No. "No"? No. How about, "May-ay-ay-ay-aybe." Awesome, we'll take it.
Example: Every song ever written by Bush. If you know what a Machinehead is, please fill me in.
Candlebox? Check. May-ay-aybe.

There's a reason half my friends thought "Far Behind" was by Seven Mary Three, and "Tomorrow" was by Candlebox, and "Cumbersome" was by Silverchair. The height of the alt-rock explosion birthed "generic grunge bands" more successfully than any pop-music trend before or since. To music execs, and to the kids in my class, Candlebox didn't matter. Nirvana did, but Candlebox didn't. What mattered was that, between "In Bloom" and "Heart-Shaped Box," we had "Far Behind" to keep us listening.

In a way, it was genius: if you're looking for the next Nirvana, you're 1) too late and 2) missing the point. There's only one Nirvana. Instead, find the band that on paper meets the grunge criteria, has at least one good pop song that you can sell to the alt-rock demographic, and milk the cow til it can't stand anymore.

So, Candlebox was awesome--and affectionately recalled by 96X--because of how un-great they were. If the best bands create their own checklist, the Candlebox's of the world succeed because they can check more boxes than everyone else.

Of course, the now-desperate music industry of the 21st century has adopted the Candlebox Model as its lone method for talent buying and development. Find the bands that look the part, fit the model, and overall sound like something resembling a successful band and snatch them up. Emo haircuts? Check. Expensive girl jeans? Check. Whiny vocals? Check. And so on...

The difference is that, where Old unCandlebox Model used pop songwriting as an essential method of selection (i.e., pick the bands that look the part and have a catchy single, and let the market do the rest), the New Candlebox Model has everything on the checklist but song potential. Where the old bands were mimicking Nirvana, Soundgarden, and other hugely lucrative juggernauts, current bands mimick an proven commodity.

For example, if you're Silverchair writing "Tomorrow" to imitate "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and you wear flannel and ripped jeans to resemble Nirvana, you're in a position to succeed. You've picked a chart-topping band to mimick, so you too could potentially top the charts.

But if you're, say, Goodbye Again (a fictitious emo band), and you're writing songs to mimick Panic! At the Disco, and you're spending all of your money to dress like them, you'll likely get a record deal because an A&R guy saw a full checklist. But Panic! At the Disco doesn't have a Top 10 song; they're not chart-toppers, they're not hit-makers, and they're not making anyone millionaires.

So, the difference is whether the mid-range bands are shooting for the stars, or shooting at a flagpole. And the difference there lies in the songs themselves. Always has, always will.



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